DON'T LET BOOKS LEAN!, or, the Enduring Technology of the Book: Notes from an ARLIS/NA Conference Workshop

The participants at the March 30 workshop held in conjunction with the ARLIS/NA annual conference in Toronto surely walked away from the experience with an arsenal of information about what causes books to break down and the myriad of enclosures available for protecting them. "Protective Boxes, Slipcases … and More," taught by sage book conservator Betsy Palmer Eldridge and hosted at the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild, informed the group about a range of often interacting mechanical, chemical, and environment factors that can lead to book damage. Woven throughout the presentation were in-depth dicussions and demonstrations of a catalog of protective enclosures, one of the most prevalent methods for preserving compromised material. The workshop ended up serving as a kind of antithesis to the many sessions addressing digital projects and themes presented at the main conference. Books still form the bedrock of most art library collections, and it was gratifying to be reminded of their "objectness" (and attendant vulnerabilities to physical attrition) and also of their lasting effectiveness as a form of information technology provided they receive even a modest amount of care. As a final exercise, students bound and stitched a small pamphlet—a perfect closing to this revelatory workshop.


^ Betsy Eldridge Showing a Copy of Hedi Kyle's Preservation Enclosures

Workshop Notes

DON'T LET BOOKS LEAN!: the worst thing you can do to a book is allow it to lean, which places uneven stress on the binding structure, accelerating its breakdown. Another ingenious shelving tip: shelve books an inch back from the edge of the shelf to allow forefinger swiping for signs of insect activity.

Opening a book from the back: The kindest thing you can do for a book is open it from the back since the rear part of the book is not used as much as the front.

A book's cover: Eldridge stressed the importance of the cover as a kind of protective shield encapsulating the text block: keeping the cover on the book should be the first preservation step. A simple and effective treatment is tying the book up with cotton string or webbing. Another method is adding a Melinex (polyester) dust cover/jacket. Eldridge reminded her students that paper acidity can damage not only the pages in a book, but equally its cover.

Squares: the square is the board cover, which is commonly slighly larger than the text block in a hardback book. An advantage of this design is that there is an open channel around the text block, which can aid with water drainage. Paperback books commonly have squares exactly the same size as the text block.

Hollow and closed back books matrix:

  TIGHT BACK HOLLOW BACK
TIGHT JOINT All Pre 1850: 17th, 18th and 19th centuries 1850-1950 (late 19th century)
GROOVE JOINT RARE: English Library Binding All case bindings from 20th century

The problem of light : it's not the amount of light, it's the kind of light. Ultraviolet wavelengths, i.e. lower end of the visible spectrum, cause probelms. Fluorescent tubes emit lower wavelengths in the photochemical ranges, which are particularly damaging to paper while incandescent light sources are more neutral. UV filters should always be used in book storage areas with fluorescent lighting. Eldridge commented that if a plant is flourishing in the same room as where books are stored, it’s usually a bad environment for books.

Slipcases: do a great job of holding the fore edges of a book together, but there is a problem of friction on boards as the book moves in and out of the case and also spine exposure. The Ascona slipcase is particularly good for books with no "squares," ie with boards exactly the same same size as the text block. One example is featured introduction from the Library of Congress's 1982 publication Boxes for the Protection of Rare Books: Their Design and Construction.

Hedi Kyle's Legacy: In 1983, Hedi Kyle produced 65 copies of her now-very-rare and instructive publication Preservation Enclosures. Eldridge treated the class to a close examination of this marvelous production that provides materials and instructions for constructing seven different kinds of enclosures, commenting on the pros and cons of each assembly. This was an absolute wonder to see! Worldcat holdings; see also: Hedi Kyle archived workshop held at Syracsue University library.

The knitting needle treatment: Eldridge reminded students of the tried-and-true technique for repairing loose hinges developed by Carolyn Horton and published in her 1967/1969 publication Cleaning and Preserving Bindings and Related Materials. A good explantion of the technique is here.

Microclimates: putting a book inside a sealed environment is okay as long as it is a dry environment.

Tissue guard sheets: I brought up the issue of tissue guard sheets and their prevalence in illustrated books to protect an illustration from bleeding over to the opposite page. Betsy recommended removing them as any transfer protection they may have served is now obviated.

Cradles: use cradles to support fragile books when open; a good and inexpensive cradle (and one she used at the workshop) is a simple bath towel with the edges rolled to accommodate the size of the book.

Water damage: the best preventive measure you can take in terms of water risks is knowing where the water comes from and where it is going. Clay-coated paper is especially vulnerable to water damage. Flash freezing is currently the best treatment for water-damaged books; water is frozen and then can be sublimated/vacuumed out. Know the location of the closest book freezer. Another effective method is wrapping a book in a single fold of craft paper to allow air circulation; fan books out to dry. You typically have 48 hours before mold starts growing. Another treatment is paper towels sprayed with alcohol: the alcohol aids evaporation and kills mold. 70% humidity and 70 degrees temperature: ideal environment for mold growth.

More about water (understanding precipitation): Eldridge cited the example of a stack of ten pancakes and that stack’s ability to absorb syrup. Once the pancakes have reached their capacity, what is left is precipitate. Applied to level of water in the air, the precipitate is what is left when the air has absorbed all the water it can. The precipitate is what the mold needs to start flourishing.

Plasticizers!: certain chemicals are added to plastics to make the pliable; the problem is that these chemicals evaporate over time and leave the material brittle.

Anything is better than nothing: throughout the presentation, Eldridge reminded the group that "anything is better than nothing," underscoring that any level of preservation treatment does some good.

Original Program Description

Protective Boxes, Slipcases… and more

Friday March 30, 2012 1:00- 5:00pm @ Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild.

Workshop Leader: Betsy Palmer Eldridge, Book Conservator

Description: At the heart of every library is the basic problem of preserving its book collections. This workshop will look at a wide variety of solutions for protecting book materials - from catalogues and exhibition announcements to books - from the simple to the complex, from the standard to the unusual, from the traditional to the new. Examples will be shown and the pros and cons of each discussed. Participants will make a paper slipcase for the paperback, Margaret Locke’s "Bookbinding Materials and Techniques, 1700-1920," as a hands-on, take-home example. This information will be both interesting and useful for anyone working with books.